It spread throughout Europe, to the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe. Mannerism marked the end of the Renaissance, it began around 1520 and lasted in Italy until 1580. However, the style maintained its popularity throughout Europe until 1600.
In this guide, learn all about the Mannerism period, its timeline, influences, most famous artists and get a complete overview of the history and context of this movement.
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The timeline of the Mannerism art period
The Mannerism art period occurred between 1520 – 1600 in Europe and North America. It was preceded by the High Renaissance period (1490-1527) and succeeded by the Baroque period (1600-1750). The evolution of Mannerism can be divided into three main phases:
- Initial Phase (1520-1560): This phase began with artists such as Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Parmigianino, Bronzino and Rosso Fiorentino who sought to challenge the ideals of classical art.
- High Mannerism (1560-1590): This phase saw an increase in complexity and decoration in artworks due to the influence of El Greco and Tintoretto.
- Late Mannerism (1590-1600): This final phase of Mannerism was marked by a return to more classical motifs, culminating in the works of Annibale Carracci, Bartolomeo Passarotti and in Northern Europe with Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
- The Baroque period (17th century) succeeded the Mannerism period. Artists such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer created dramatic and theatrical works, inspired by the style of Mannerism.
The history of the Mannerism period
The Mannerism period began in the late 16th century and was marked by a move away from the harmony and idealistic beauty of High Renaissance art, that had been inspired by the classics studies of Greek and Roman Humanist art. It drew a link between the idealistic nature of High Renaissance and the theatricality of Baroque paintings.
This stylistic exploration is thought to have been caused by a combination of economic, social and technological developments occurring at this time.
The Mannerist period could be seen as a reaction against the idealising nature of Renaissance art. It sought to explore forms of representation by experimenting with composition and form while pushing the boundaries of realism. This resulted in paintings featuring elongated proportions, complex compositions, exaggerated features and dramatic lighting effects.
The influence of the printing press
Mannerist painters sought new ways to depict their subjects, often resulting in highly stylised compositions with exaggerated figures. Many factors contributed to this change in style. One factor was the introduction of printmaking, which meant that images of Michelangelo’s artworks were spread throughout Italy, inspiring the collective imagination. The perceived achievement of artistic and aesthetic perfection by artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci meant that there was a newfound admiration for artists by, not only other artists, but also the public. This lead to a demand for other artists to replicate their success and imitate their style. Younger artists were influenced by Michelangelo’s nude figures and attempted to recreate his style in their own works. Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ remains to be one of the most famous paintings ever created.
The widespread appreciation for the works of the High Renaissance masters meant that artists had a new status in society. Instead of being craftsmen, artists were newly regarded as being intellectuals. In his book ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’, Vasari, the Mannerist artist and art historian, commented that masterful paintings demanded intellect in order to be executed. This is evident in the techniques, refinement and inventiveness that were required during the creation of the painting. Vasari’s series of artists’ biographies paved the way for other art historians to document modern art history.
New religious ideas
The Protestant Reformation had a significant impact on the art of the Mannerism period. With a move away from the common religious works found in the Renaissance, Mannerist artists sought to express their own unique interpretations of Christian subjects, often expressing spiritual truths. As Protestant ideals grew throughout Europe, Mannerist artists such as Parmigianino began to glorify more secular themes such as love and passion through their works. This can be seen in his Renaissance painting “The Madonna with the Long Neck”.
Furthermore, the Roman Catholic church felt threatened by the rise of Protestantism. The church used art as a medium to retain their presence and dominance, by funding works by Mannerist artists. Then, after the assemblance of the Council of Trent by the Catholic Church, the Counter Reformation was launched and had a significant impact on the art of the Mannerist period.
How 16th century scientific discoveries affected Mannerism
The scientific discoveries of the 16th century, such as Copernicus’ observation that the sun is the centre of our universe and the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, had a huge influence on Mannerist painters. This new knowledge allowed artists to break away from Humanist ideals and encouraged them to embrace more innovative and intellectual themes.
Advances in anatomy and optics during the Mannerism period enabled a more accurate representation of figures and space in painting. Artists of the time used this knowledge to create a more stylised view of the human figure. They exaggerated proportions and contorted them into dramatic poses. This was done as an expression of individual creativity, often with the intention of eliciting an emotional response from the viewer. It also provided an opportunity to explore themes related to political power, religious ritual, status symbols and societal issues.
Mannerist painters sought to express a feeling of alienation from society through their works. They often depicted portraits and figures in more twisted poses with distorted proportions. Some artists used intense colours to represent emotional states such as joy or sadness. While others experimented with perspective and depth to create an atmosphere of tension and unease in their paintings. By challenging social conventions through their art, Mannerist painters were able to make powerful statements about human life and give voice to what many people at the time felt could not be said openly.
Social and political influences on Mannerism
Capitalism and absolutism had a major contribution to the divergence in style of Mannerism art from Renaissance art. Rise of pre-industrial capitalism meant increased urbanisation and competition, which encouraged flamboyance, extravagance and individuality. Absolutism reinforced the notion of power being concentrated in wealth owners, who were able to only further propagate their ideology through the visual arts.
Where did the term Mannerism come from?
In the late 18th century, Italian archaeologist Luigi Lanzi popularized the term “Mannerism”. He derived this from the Italian phrase “maniera,” meaning style. Mannerism is commonly defined as a “stylish style” in art, emphasising artificiality, artistic expression, to deliberately develop elegant and stylised creative works, over literal depictions of the figure.
Vasari wrote about “maniera” in relation to the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. He noted that they had developed a new style of painting that became popular among their followers. He argued that “maniera” was a sign of artistic mastery and genius—something only the most skilled artists could achieve.
Mannerism is believed to have been influenced by the works of Michelangelo, which were characterised by dramatic poses and dynamic compositions. The discovery of ancient Roman frescoes in buried cities also served as an inspiration for many Mannerist painters.
Characteristics of the Mannerism art period
Mannerism was an art style that focused on artificiality, elegance, personal expression and sophistication rather than the naturalism and balance of classical art styles. Mannerist painters created elongated figures and unnatural colour schemes to create a sense of tension in the composition. The palette used during this period was darker than the brighter colours used in High Renaissance art. Mannerist painters were also known for their distorted and exaggerated figures. They were also known for bold use of shadow and light to create dramatic effects. Furthermore, Mannerist artists conveyed emotion through their works rather than trying to accurately portray a scene. This allowed them to emphasise the spiritual or symbolic meaning behind a work of art.
Mannerism sought to challenge the ideals of classical art. The High Renaissance was inspired by classical studies of Ancient Greece and Rome and the depiction of the human form in a naturalistic manner. However, the Mannerist artists focussed less on portraying subjects in a literal sense and instead focussing on being imaginative and expressive.
Even though artists were starting to diverge from classical portrayals of subjects, Mannerist sculptors continued to use techniques developed in Ancient Greece, such as contrapposto. This is where the figure is portrayed in a naturalistic pose, leaning on one leg. This technique was also used heavily in the High Renaissance period.
Other notable features include highly stylised figures with intricate poses. Then, increased attention to details such as clothing and jewellery. It also included an emphasis on decorative elements over narrative content; and an overall sense of artificiality and exaggeration. They did this in order to represent the bizarre, to challenge people’s perceptions of reality.
Dramatic composition in Mannerism art
Mannerism art was characterised by a dramatic composition that focused primarily on the aesthetics of the artwork. Artists often used exaggerated, elongated figures in complicated poses to create a sense of energy and tension. While dramatic lighting and bold colours further emphasised these effects. Shifting perspective and highly stylised settings were also commonly employed to add a sense of drama to Mannerist works.
Proportions in Mannerism art
Mannerist painters often used extreme foreshortening to create dynamic, highly stylised compositions. This is evident in works such as El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ,” which features exaggerated figures with distorted proportions and elongated hands that appear to be reaching out from a deep background.
Several renowned artists emerged during this period including Pontormo, Parmigianino, Perino del Vaga, Tintoretto and Bronzino. They are considered among the masters of Mannerism art. Pontormo was known for his vibrant hues and dynamic poses that express emotion and movement. While Parmigianino’s works were characterised by classical themes combined with modern attitudes towards composition. Perino del Vaga was admired for his large compositions featuring multiple figures in striking poses. Then, Tintoretto’s works were set apart by their boldness and theatricality. Finally, Bronzino was renowned for his playing with light to achieve bright contrasting effects. As well as his use of elaborate frames and borders.
A Mannerist painter who lived in Italy during the 16th century, Parmigianino was known for his use of dynamic compositions, exaggerated poses and extreme foreshortening, all of which were characteristic of the Mannerist period. His most famous work, “The Madonna with the Long Neck,” features a graceful figure set against a dramatic backdrop with distorted proportions and an elongated neck.
Vasari was one of the most influential Mannerist artists of his time. Born in Arezzo, Italy, in 1511, Vasari trained to become a painter under the tutelage of Florence’s preeminent Mannerist artist, Andrea del Sarto. Under del Sarto’s guidance, Vasari developed an innovative style that relied heavily on experimentation with colour and perspective to add a sense of staginess to his biblical artworks. He specialised in creating large-scale works characterised by their intricate details and vivid depiction of emotion. Additionally, Vasari incorporated elements from the High Renaissance period into his work—namely figures with exaggerated movements and expressions. Through his bold use of colour and unique methodological approach to painting, Vasari pioneered Mannerism as a movement that reached beyond traditional Renaissance values and questioned previously accepted boundaries for art.
Jacopo Tintoretto was a prominent Mannerist artist of the sixteenth century. He was born in Venice, and is best known for his large-scale works depicting religious subjects. His paintings exuded emotional intensity, captivating viewers and engulfing them in the scenes.
Tintoretto worked in an expressive Mannerist style characterised by intense drama, vivid colours, and dramatic use of composition and perspective. He also experimented with unconventional methods—employing various tools to achieve the desired effects on his paintings.
Among his most famous works were two commissions from Venice—The Last Supper (1592) and Paradise (1588). Beyond these large-scale commissioned works, much of Tintoretto’s art was inspired by classical sources and mythology. Through these pieces, he created a unique visual language that transcended traditional narratives and pushed the boundaries of artistic expression. Tintoretto’s work has had an immense influence on art history as a whole: inspiring other artists to experiment with scale, imagery, and compositional techniques to create new means of visual expression.
Andrea del Sarto
An influential Italian Mannerist painter, Andrea del Sarto was born in Florence, Italy in 1486. He was a master of the High Renaissance style, but during the Mannerist period, he turned to more complex compositions featuring elongated figures and dramatic poses. His paintings consisted of serene and balanced compositions, with a muted palette that focused on subtle contrasts between light and dark hues.
Del Sarto’s work was distinct from other Mannerists in that it retained elements of naturalism while still incorporating the exaggerated poses and stylised forms characteristic of Mannerism. His art often featured scenes with figures in theatrical poses, he also experimented with foreshortening and depicted objects on different levels, creating an illusion of depth in his paintings. Through his works, Del Sarto was able to capture the complexity and religious intensity characteristic of Mannerism art.
His most famous works include The Last Supper (1520), Portrait of a Lady (1519) and The Annunciation (1528). His art has been highly influential in the development of Mannerism; creating a bridge between traditional Renaissance values and more experimental approaches to composition, line and colour.
An artist of the Parma school, Correggio was an Italian painter of the High Renaissance period, born in 1489 near Parma. He is regarded as one of the leading figures of Mannerism and credited as having a major influence on European art during this period. His works are characterised by a unique blend of expressive figurative painting, complex composition and intricate perspective.
Correggio also experimented with unique techniques such as using light to create dramatic effects that heighten emotion and drama. Some of his most famous works include The Assumption of Mary (1524-26), Madonna della Scodella (1530–32) and The Holy Night (1533–34). His works have been influential not just on later Mannerists but also on Baroque painters such as Rubens, Rembrandt and Chardin. Correggio has left an indelible mark on art history through his remarkable visual language which gracefully combines classical subject matter with inventive treatment—inspiring generations of artists to think outside the box when it comes to creating powerful artwork.
The lasting influence of the Mannerism art period
The Mannerism art period was a pivotal time in the history of art and has had a lasting influence on later generations of painters. It marked a significant departure from the Renaissance tradition, focusing more on expressionism and emotional intensity. Mannerist paintings often featured elongated figures, dynamic poses, complex compositions and intense light effects—all qualities that spoke to the turbulent times in which they were created.
The lasting influence of these works is evident in later movements such as Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicism. Even today’s contemporary artists can see themselves connected to their 16th-century predecessors through the use of similar techniques. Mannerist art also profoundly impacted how we perceive our physical environment, inspiring us to look at everyday objects with a heightened sense of awareness. By pushing the boundaries of art during this formative period, Mannerism continues to remain relevant centuries later.